Agrihoods Promise Fresh Food and Community. But Can They Add Equity?

Neighborhoods centered around farms can address fundamental food system challenges. But they need to be more inclusive.

LIKE MANY AGRIHOODS, the Santa Clara Agrihood bills itself as a “sustainable community.” The master-planned neighborhood centered around a farm that is slated to be completed in 2024, will include modern townhomes and apartments with sharp, geometric angles and large balconies, overlooking a fruit orchard and an organic farm enclosed by native hedgerows. There will be a cafe, plenty of outdoor seating, and vines crawling up carefully placed trellises.

A rendering of the Santa Clara Agrihood in California. Funded in part by an affordable housing bond, the project represents an effort to break from the mold and make the agrihood model more accessible. Image courtesy of the California Native Garden Foundation.

The Santa Clara development will be the latest in a growing number of agrihoods that function not just as a site of food production but also a source of community building. Ed McMahon, a senior fellow of sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute, a network of cross-disciplinary real estate and land use experts across the world, estimates that there are more than 200 agrihoods across the United States, spanning at least 30 states, from rural communities to major cities. And it’s easy to see why. As McMahon put it, “walkable, charming neighborhoods — that’s a scarce resource.” Beyond that, agrihoods also harken back to an earlier way of living.

“Everyone in America was at one time either a farmer themselves or their neighbors were the farmers. Then we separated farm production from farm consumption, and nobody knew where their food came from,” said McMahon. “This is a way to restore that balance, at least to a small extent.”

AS A MODEL, an agrihood has the potential to address fundamental food system challenges, such as food miles and possible supply chain disruptions. “In principle, it makes sense to more strategically integrate agricultural production into wherever we live,” said Joshua Sbicca, associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University and author of A Recipe for Gentrification. “It makes sense to have greater connection to the land and makes sense to have more immediate access to food, which is a fundamental need.”

Yet Sbicca cautions that agrihoods could also cause harm by being poorly integrated into an existing neighborhood, or even displacing residents. A question he tends to ask when evaluating “green gentrification” is: who ultimately benefits?

So far, the answer to Sbicca’s question is the well-heeled. The term “agrihood” was popularized by 2014 New York Times article about a popular development in Arizona called Agritopia. The article noted at the time that homes in the community sold for “no more than similar houses in the area.” But since then, they have risen to a median price of over a million dollars, while homes in the surrounding community go for about half that price. Other agrihoods are similarly pricey, often treating the farm as an “amenity” that adds to its marketability and cost.

“We can maximize stability in local communities by having them manage their own food,” said Middlebrook. “I see it as a way to not only deal with the climate crisis, but with a lot of other crises that are happening in America today.”

Some of the earliest agrihoods, such as Prairie Crossing in Illinois (pictured), emerged as a compromise between housing developers and agricultural conservationists. While it is a land preservation success story, Prairie Crossing is still mostly home to middle- and high-income White people. Photo by Payton Chung.

Rancho Mission Viejo, a similarly high-priced agrihood in San Juan Capistrano, California. Photo courtesy of Rancho Mission Viejo.

“Instead of building golf courses and tennis courts . . . they decided, ‘let’s get connected to a farm and make that the feature for young professionals,”’ said Alrie Middlebrook, the president of the California Native Garden Foundation, which helped design the Santa Clara Agrihood’s landscape.

Funded in part by an affordable housing bond, the Santa Clara project represents an effort to break from the mold, and make the agrihood model more accessible. It is designed to benefit the broader community, too. Those involved plan to host regenerative agriculture workshops and offer volunteer opportunities for the public, while the food will be sold at a farmstand using the honor system, like many rural farmstands. In this case, customers will pay with a QR code, or by drop box. Middlebrook hopes to create a model for similar communities.

“We can maximize stability in local communities by having them manage their own food,” said Middlebrook. “I see it as a way to not only deal with the climate crisis, but with a lot of other crises that are happening in America today.”

Other new agrihoods have also been making an effort to build environmental justice into their model. In Wisconsin, for instance, the grassroots group Save the Farm has been pushing to turn 65 acres of farmland into “a radically inclusive community that creates housing, food, and economic security for all.” They originally sought to buy the land but a developer has put in an offer that remains pending, according to Colleen Robinson of Save the Farm. So far, however, the developer has been receptive to the group’s vision.

“We’re hopeful that they see us as a very strong asset and a partner,” said Robinson. “This could really be a national model of developers working with the community towards something sustainable and affordable.”

As agrihoods take on more forms, Benjamin Breger, a municipal planner who has researched agrihoods, sees the need for a clearer definition of the term. “The best thing would be a certification,” he said. “So, people aren’t duped into moving to an agrihood and land-use planners aren’t supporting this idea and not really getting the benefits out of it.”

He points to how this definition could include permanently protected land and a way to include more middle- and low-income residents.

Many of the earliest agrihoods, such as Prairie Crossing in Illinois, emerged as a compromise between housing developers and agricultural conservationists.

In the 1970s, a major developer announced plans to tear up 677 acres of tiled soy and corn fields to build 2,000 houses. After a lengthy court battle, conservationists purchased the land in a bid to restore its original swales, tall grass prairies, and wetlands. They placed 180 acres under a conservation easement. Midwestern-style housing is nestled throughout about 135 acres, nearby an organic farm.

Developed before the term agrihood was popularized, the founders generally refer to it as a “conservation community.” And it’s an example of just how successful this style of development can be at conserving farmland, habitats, and wildlife. Earlier this month, a resident encountered a bobolink — one of the migratory birds that travels the farthest — perched in a hayfield late in the season, considering nesting. They’ve built a community that trusts each other to conduct prescribed burns, periodically setting fire to the prairie to encourage native grasses.

But while it’s a hotbed of biodiversity and a land preservation success story, Prairie Crossing is still mostly home to middle and high income White people (the median home cost is $400,000, according to realtor.com). “Building a community with economic and ethnic diversity has been tough. We’ve made progress, but we could do better,” the community’s website states. Karen Wilkes, the president of the Liberty Prairie Foundation, which owns the farm and receives some funding from the sale of resident homes, hopes to see this done through community partnerships. But it’s unclear whether that will be enough.

“When thinking about agrihoods, it [often] becomes more about the green parts of sustainability and less about the social parts of sustainability,” said Sbicca. As these novel communities quickly gain in number, the question remains: Can this change?

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

The Latest

Are Black Vultures Being Scapegoated for Livestock Deaths?

New bill would make it easier for ranchers to kill the protected birds, despite insufficient data on vulture predation.

Ian Rose

To Save Native Plant Communities, Diversify the Field

So says ecologist working to save one of California’s most endangered ecosystems and promote LGBTQ+ visibility in science.

Anna Marija Helt

Biden Attacks Republican Climate Deniers as He Unveils Extreme-Heat Rules

President hails proposal to protect millions of Americans from the nation's top weather-related killer.

Dharna Noor The Guardian

Buying Baja

In Mexico's iconic peninsula, locals fight rich outsiders and rampant development that threaten to transform the coast and dry up aquifers.

Krista Langlois Photos and video by Kristina Blanchflower

Guardians of
the Forest

The rural community of Segunda y Cajas in northern Peru leads efforts to protect one of the most biodiverse areas and vital sources of water for the region.

Leslie Moreno Custodio

A Radical Way to Recover Forest

Deforestation has left scars in Ecuador’s San Andres Valley. But in one village, residents are giving nature a respite by protecting their micro forests.

Jonathan Palma Lavayen